Magazine article The Christian Century

Thousands of Fearful Christians Flee Iraq

Magazine article The Christian Century

Thousands of Fearful Christians Flee Iraq

Article excerpt

On a recent Sunday Iraqi Christians flocked to the Latin Catholic church in the Hashmi district of Amman, a drab working-class area in the Jordanian capital, where they joined in a mass in the ancient Chaldean language. Some 200 worshipers packed the sanctuary adorned with a simple wooden cross and a picture of the Virgin and Christ.

Away from their native country, these Iraqi Christians felt safe. Fearing lawlessness and rising Islamic fundamentalism in their own country, large numbers of Iraqi Christians are fleeing to neighboring Jordan and Syria. No one knows for certain how many of Iraq's approximately 750,000 Christians have left the country since Saddam Hussein's fall and the subsequent chaos, but estimates are in the tens of thousands.

The level of mistreatment Christians face in Iraq is disputed, even among Christians themselves, but no one can deny the fear, which is palpable among those crossing the border. Church bombings in Baghdad and Mosul in early August only fueled that fear, but so do individual stories, even though few can be substantiated outside of Iraq.

One Christian attending the mass, Samir, requested that his full name not be used because of fear of reprisals against his family. A businessman from Baghdad, he recounted how militants linked to renegade Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr kidnapped and tortured him until his family paid ransom money. "A gang came to my shop with machine guns and forced me into a car where I remained for nine days," the businessman said. "They wanted $200,000 from me.

"They repeatedly hit me and poured boiling water all over my body. I was held hostage until my family paid them $50,000 to finally get me released." The man, in his mid-50s, now walks with a cane, mad burn marks are visible on his body'. He says he and his family fled to Amman but hope to find permanent refuge in Australia because he cannot find work in Jordan.

Samir and other recent refugees said militants are targeting Christians in Iraq because they perceive that the Christians have money. They also say Islamists have attacked predominately Christian-owned liquor, fashion and music shops, demanding that such "offensive" businesses be shut down.

Another fresh arrival in Amman, Bernadette Hikmat, says all this is unwarranted because Iraqi Christians are peaceful and have had a low-key presence in Iraq for the past 2,000 years.

Most of Iraq's Christians are Chaldean Eastern-rite Catholics whose church is autonomous from Rome but which recognizes the pope's authority. Other Christian groups include Roman and Syriac Catholics; Assyrians; Greek, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox; Presbyterians, Anglicans and evangelicals--about 3 percent of Iraq's population by most accounts. …

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